LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Utah's roller coaster season has hit another high. Friday night's 44-35 victory over Louisville is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of a team that has battled consistent inconsistency.
"I think it's over," quarterback Brian Johnson said after the Utes improved to 3-3 overall with their second consecutive victory. "Guys understand how good we can be when we make plays."
Johnson completed 24-of-31 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown in the win. Tailback Darrell Mack netted a career-high 163 yards and two scores.
"When we make plays we're a darn good team," Johnson said. "The bottom line is we've got to find a way to do that week in and week out."
Utah wound up with a season-high 582 yards of total offense before a sellout crowd at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and a national audience on ESPN.
"We believe in ourselves and we knew we were capable of doing it," Mack said. " ... The plan was to run the ball and it worked. We wore them down."
The Utes return to Mountain West Conference play next Saturday at home against San Diego State. They do so with a mixed bag of success — impressive wins over UCLA, Utah State and Louisville, but losses to Oregon State, Air Force and UNLV.
"The bottom line is we believe we are developing some consistency. We believe we're moving in the right direction. We've still got a long ways to go," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted there are still some things the Utes need to clean up and improve.
"The guys are playing with passion. They're playing with heart. They're playing with energy," he continued. "And as long as we do that and continue to get the effort we are getting, we are going to win some ball games along the way."
Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe wasn't happy with his team's defense.
"Obviously we can't give up 582 yards and expect to win," he said. " ... We didn't play well in any phase tonight, including our offense, which played terrible."
A surprisingly lopsided first half got a little more competitive when play resumed. Louisville opened the third quarter by scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions. Utah, meanwhile, had to punt the ball away prior to each score.
The Cardinals battled back behind the play of highly touted quarterback Brian Brohm. He completed his first three passes and 5-of-6, including a 3-yard touchdown toss to Patrick Carter, in their initial drive of the half. The pair teamed up on a 38-yard completion on the next series, which was eventually capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by running back Brock Bolen.
The scores cut Utah's lead to 27-21 with 5:06 remaining in the third quarter.
It didn't stay that way for long, though.
The Utes responded to the challenge by reeling off 14 straight points to remain ahead. They scored touchdowns on runs by Johnson (25 yards) and Mack (3 yards) to take a 41-21 lead with just more than 12 minutes to go.
It proved to be enough, but just barely.
A 46-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda with 1:13 remaining iced the outcome. Though Utah recovered two onside kicks down the stretch, Louisville managed to score a pair of touchdowns in the final six minutes. Brohm threw touchdown passes of 30 and 29 yards, respectively, to Gary Barnidge and Trent Guy in the comeback bid by the Cardinals.
"Defensively we had just enough in the tank," Whittingham said.
"That's an offense that you can't hold down forever and they came alive in the second half in a couple of different spurts. They made a couple of runs at us."
Utah's offense and defense combined to overpower Louisville early. The Utes built a 27-7 halftime lead with several dominating statistical advantages. They had more yardage (337-99), first downs (18-4) and controlled the time of possession battle by 4 1/2 minutes.
Louisville's rushing offense, which entered the game ranked 24th in the nation with 202 yards per outing, had minus-7 at the break — an extreme feat considering Utah's rushing defense came into Friday's contest ranked 96th overall while giving up 198 yards per game.
"We didn't do a good job of getting off of the press man-to-man early in the game. We did a better job the rest of the game," Kragthorpe said. "We didn't run the ball. You've got to run the ball better and you've got to get off of the press man-to-man."
Offensively, Johnson completed 15-of-19 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, while Mack ran for 88 yards and a pair of scores over the first two quarters.
After forcing Louisville to punt twice, Utah embarked on its longest scoring drive of the season. The Utes marched 97 yards on nine plays to take the lead. A 7-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Bradon Godfrey capped things off with 5:59 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing possession, a 4-yard punt by Louisville gave Utah's offense a short field to work with — and the Utes capitalized.
A 3-yard touchdown run by Mack finished a 47-yard drive as Utah's lead doubled before the quarter was complete.
Early in the second, the Utes reached the end zone once again. A 16-yard touchdown run by quarterback Corbin Louks completed a drive similar to the second score. A quarterback sack by Alex Puccinelli and another poor punt by Louisville set up the 53-yard drive.
Trailing 21-0, the Cardinals finally retaliated. In a span of less than three minutes, they covered 69 yards and closed the gap with an 11-yard scoring strike from Brohm to Guy.
It failed to spark a complete reversal of fortune, however.
Following an exchange of punts, Utah's offense resumed its dominance of Louisville's defense. Taking over on the Cardinal 44-yard line, the Utes made a fourth journey to the end zone. This one included a little help from the special teams.
A fake field goal resulted in a pass from Godfrey, the holder, to a wide-open Matt Sims on the left sideline. The 10-yard gain produced a first down and set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Mack with 1:58 to play in the half.
In a surprising twist that followed, Sakoda missed an extra point attempt for the first time in his collegiate career. He had made 56 straight PATs before bouncing a kick off the left pole.
The miss left Utah's lead at 27-7. The Utes had another opportunity to score in the closing seconds, but ran out of time after moving to the Louisville 7 on a pass play.
Whittingham called it a "learning experience."
The Utes can live with it, he added, and get it fixed.
Overall, Whittingham called it a "breakout game" for the offense.
"Now the key is to sustain that and develop consistency," he said.